With his aides in the Roosevelt Room, Obama was clear about his vision for the jobs plan: “No self-censorship based on what’s politically possible or legislative handicapping. I want to hear the best ideas that you all think will make a difference and are worth fighting for.”
Sperling proceeded to create the $447 billion American Jobs Act, which led to a new, confrontational and decidedly more populist stage of the Obama presidency.
It was a clarifying moment after years of economic debates that had gripped Obama’s White House.
Sperling, 53, the director of the National Economic Council, has been at the center of these debates, just as he was in the Clinton administration. Like the Democratic presidents he has served, Sperling has wrestled with the competing demands of idealism and realism, liberal orthodoxy and financial markets.
This has meant knowing when the president should fight for exactly what he thinks is right and when he should adjust policy to work within legislative constraints. And it has meant balancing the urge to use government spending to create jobs and invest in public programs with the imperative to curb the nation’s debt.
“Gene is deeply committed to a traditional, Democratic, FDR perspective on policy issues,” former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin said in an interview. “But he has a deeply internalized sense of the severe risk that an unsound fiscal regime presents with respect to markets and financial crises.”
In the view of many liberals, the Obama White House has too often struck the wrong balance: The 2009 stimulus was too small; the 2010 deal that extended upper-income tax cuts was too generous to the rich, and the 2011 embrace of deficit reduction was the wrong priority.
But with the American Jobs Act, which proposed heavy government spending and middle-class tax cuts to boost the economy, those critics have been largely silenced. In fact, many on the left cheered the president’s proposal.
“I think you’re always torn between two fundamental balancing acts. One is between your ideal policy and what are the practical achievements you can do to help people. And the second balance is progressive policies that invest in a growing middle class, in a more just economy and the need to establish the trust in government that comes from being fiscally responsible,” Sperling said in an interview. “You try to keep your sense of basic values and why you’re here and just work your heart out through each tough trade-off to try to get it right.”